New Book Examines Roots of Cambodian Classical Dance

“Dance of Life: The Mythology, History and Politics of Cambodian Culture”

By Julie B Mehta

This exuberant, personal account of classical Khmer dance has been a lengthy labor of love for freelance journalist Julie Bannerjee-Mehta, who worked on it for more than a decade.

“Exuberant” because Mehta is a high-energy collection of strong enthusiasms, including Cambodian dance, Indian history, photography, the costumer’s art, comparative religions and Asian culture of many descriptions.

“Personal” because the book does not read like an academic tome, though it is full of scholarly references and offers a useful bibliography. It is more like an unusually interesting personal journal with very cool photo­graphs.

It is bad luck for Mehta that her dance book came out last year while a storm was raging in Cambodia over a biography of Prince Noro­dom Ranariddh by her husband, Harish Mehta.

“Warrior Prince” created a furor in Cam­bodia when King Norodom Sihanouk objected loudly and at length to a number of its passages. No mainstream bookstore has been willing to carry “Warrior Prince”, although a few bootleg copies are in circulation. The same skittishness seems to extend to Mehta’s book, although it presents a highly flattering portrait of Prince Ranariddh’s sister, Princess Norodom Bopha Devi, the Minister of Culture and an internationally famous Khmer classical dancer in her youth.

Still, at $62 for the paperback version, the book is unlikely to find many buyers in cash-strapped Cambodia. It’s easy to see where the money went—the coffee-table style book is awash in color photographs, some gorgeous, some rare, some quirky, virtually all of them interesting.

The author traces the history of sacred dance in India and Cambodia, sketches the evolution of the Khmer empire, and follows the sad spiral of Cambodian culture during the dark days of the Khmer Rouge regime, when an estimated 90 percent of performing artists died or were killed.

Mehta provides a wealth of detail on the relationship between the sacred carvings in Khmer temples and dance gestures today, as well as various theories on the religious significance of the dance.

Some of the most engaging passages are her interviews with dancers and teachers, from Princess Norodom Bopha Devi to young dancers Ouk Phalla and Vuth Chanmoly.

The book would have benefited from more rigorous editing. Some of the passages are repetitive, and some of the pictures a bit too blurry for purists.

But then you’ll come across a gem, like a description of the austere Chinese Premier Chou En-lai stroking “the more tempting rotundities of an apsara” during a visit to Angkor Wat.

Or the nugget that “there are close to 1,000 gestures” in Cambodian dance. Or the theory that the carved apsaras at temples are beautiful-but-sexless because the artists smoked opium, or the tidbit that apsaras is Sanskrit for “water sprites.”

It’s a book to page through slowly and enjoy.

“Dance of Life: The Mythology, History and Politics of Cambodian Culture” by Julie B Mehta is published by Graham Brash. It is  available at Asia Books, Bangkok, at $62 for the paperback edition, $98 for the hardcover.


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